Easy run for Bolsonaro?

There is no doubt that a conservative upsurge has enveloped the drastically altered political landscape of Brazil which is facing the second round of presidential contest on October 28. Most of the survey reports and opinion polls suggest that there are high chances that Jair Bolsonaro, 63, an ex-army captain known for his tough talk on crime and his vitriol against women, blacks, native Brazilians and gays, would be able to eventually emerge as the next president of Latin America’s biggest economy. But the fact is that Brazil politics is passing through a very critical phase where the chasm between the left and right has suddenly started widening. Nearly 50 million voters - or 46 percent of the electorate -backed him in a contest with 13 candidates. The results of October 7 elections for president, Congress and state governments have literally shaken the whole fabric of Brazilian politics. The decades-long control of leftists and centrists on the political infrastructure is appearing to be fading away fast.

In the first round of presidential elections, almost 50 million voters, 46 per cent of the electorate, favoured Jair Bolsonaro against a dozen other candidates. Some opinion polls had predicted that his support would be limited to 35 per cent of the voters but he surprised everyone with his handsome tally that almost made him the president. He shot through those numbers, besting his closest opponent — Fernando Haddad, from the leftist Workers’ Party — with a lead of 17 percentage points. Brazilians practically decimated a traditional political class which had been discredited recently by a massive corruption scandal. In fact, two third of incumbents were ousted from the Congress by the voters and the whole complexion of Congress has been changed dramatically. Bolsonaro’s own tiny Social Liberal Party (PSL) – once a political afterthought – made an incredible leap from a one-seat party to becoming the second largest party in the 513-member lower house, with 52 seats. The left lost some seats. But the centre collapsed. “Bolsonaro is accelerating the rupture of Brazilians into two antagonistic camps,” said Robert Muggah, director of the Igarapé Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based think tank that specializes in security issues.

The centrist Presidents have been dominating ever since Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985. The country made a shift towards the left in 2003 with the with the presidential victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known as Lula — and his Workers’ Party (PT) remained at the helm of powers for next 13 years. However, things appeared to be taking a negative turn for the Worker’s Party when Lula was jailed on corruption charges and barred from contesting the election. The overwhelming support to Bolsonaro was surprising for everyone including his own supporters. Though Bolsonaro could not win a clear majority - he will now face Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers’ Party (who grabbed 29 percent of the vote) in a second round – but there is every reason to believe that he is odd-favourite to win the coveted post. Despite being branded a racist, homophobic, and misogynist fascist by his opponents, Bolsonaro is most likely to defeat his rival Fernando Haddad with a big margin again. But support for him is rather inconsistent throughout the country – particularly Brazil’s poor northeast states that didn’t return a majority for Bolsonaro in the first round. Certainly, Mr. Bolsonaro’s track record makes for some shocking reading. He has reportedly passed very obnoxious remarks on a female congresswoman in the past. In a country with a climbing murder rate and an alarming reputation for police brutality, he has proposed “apparently” very displeasing solutions to the violence; looser gun laws and giving the police free rein to shoot without repercussion, and reducing the age a child can be tried as an adult to 14 (from 18).

Bolsonaro has slammed government-mandated quotas for minorities at universities, and wants to develop the Amazon. He wants the guns to be easily accessible to civilians to fight a crime wave. He has labelled the former dictatorship as “beautiful,” raising questions about his commitment to democracy. The interesting aspect is that, in spite of such eccentric and quirky outlook, he has attracted a huge number of votes by pledging to jump-start the economy and fight crime and corruption. Even some have equated Bolsonaro to Donald Trump or Silvi Berlusconi, but Bolsonaro is a different kind of politician who knows how to control his eccentric. Even the arithmetic is also on his side. Bolsonaro’s arithmetic to win the runoff is relatively easier than Haddad’s. In the first round, only the top five candidates posted somewhat large numbers which can play a decisive role in the second round.

Bolsonaro has already been endorsed by the fifth-place finisher, potentially giving him chance to bag almost half the votes he needs for a win. Similarly, many supporters of the conservative Alckmin - fourth-place finisher – are expected to vote for Bolsonaro, making it further easier for him to be on the top. On the other hand, Haddad is banking on the support of the third-place finisher, center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who won 12.5 percent of the vote. If everything else goes well, still Haddad would also need to carry virtually 100 percent of the votes cast for the rest of the lot of the first round candidates. This seems practically impossible for him, particularly when the gap between him and Bolsonaro was very big in the preliminary vote. Against this backdrop, there is every likelihood that Bolsonaro will have an easy run on October 28, ushering Brazilian democracy into a very different phase of “hopes and fears”.


The writer is a freelance columnist.

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